How We Shape Our Cities and, Then They Shape Us

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  • 7/31/2019 How We Shape Our Cities and, Then They Shape Us

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    Sevtsuk, A. How we shape our cities, and then they shape us, MAJA: the Estonian

    Architectural Review, 2-2012 (72), pp. 10-15, 2012.

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    How we shape our cities, and then they shape us.

    The quality of the built environment is one of those topics that is absolutely centralto the fields of architecture and planning, yet difficult to articulate with rigor. Thereis no widely accepted theory of good built environments and different attempts tocraft one are perpetually challenged by the elusive nature of the relationshipbetween urban form and the activities it accommodates on the one hand, and thedifferences in cultural context in every city on the other. Yet, despite theinadequacies of professional knowledge on the ingredients of good city form, alaypersons attraction towards delightful urban environments, such as Copenhagen,Paris, Tallinn or Hong Kong, offers testimony to the important role that urbangeometry plays in shaping our attitudes towards cities.

    The state of knowledge on the form-process dialectic suggests that general

    questions, such as how does urban configuration affect social life? are defeated atthe outset because more interactions are found than a single answer couldpossibly suggest. Perhaps more important, the complexity of cities also suggeststhat any particular interaction between form and use is neither unique nordeterministic. Instead, the relationship can take many forms and depends on manyadditional factors beyond form that affect peoples use of space.

    In order to gain a little insight into this relationship between the physical pattern ofcities and the life that takes place therein, consider a simple intersection of roads.Settlements have often emerged at crossroads, and not just roads but also otherpaths of access waterways, railways and nowadays even airports. There is notmuch interesting about this intersection, other than the fact that it produces a

    moment of centrality a place, which is reached by everyone that passes throughthese roads, a place of encounters and exposure. We can imagine this place givingrise to human decisions to locate certain economic activities there a post-office, arestaurant, a place of employment and so on. As a result of such decisions, peoplestart to shape the built environment they create buildings at the crossroads tohouse their activities. But where these activities are placed is affected by the initialgeometry of roads. By placing their activities in the environment, people not onlyshape the settlement, but the pre-existing geometry of the settlement also helpsshape peoples decisions and behavior.

    We can imagine this process unfolding over time, producing more activities andmore buildings. Because of the additional demand that new activities generate,even new streets may be added, altering the initial geometry of the path network.As a result, we end up with a circular causality where we shape our buildings andthey in turn impact our behavior, as Winston Churchill famously remarked. Causeand effect in this circular process are difficult to untangle, but this process, whichunfolds in every city, is absolutely fundamental to a society and to its peoplesidentity. Sometimes it is so consistent over time that it produces an environmentthat we associate with a particular type of city a Hansiatic city, an American city,or an Indonesian Kampong. The reciprocal relationship between people and theirenvironments are part of a system of agreements and interactions that constitutethe culture of a society.

    It is important to consider these dynamics today because they allow us to open adiscussion about what kind of a city we might want to live in, and what tools or

    strategies we could possibly use to achieve it. If we deal with the expansion of anestablished urban core Tallinn, Stockholm, or Helsinki for instance what spatial

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    Sevtsuk, A. How we shape our cities, and then they shape us, MAJA: the Estonian

    Architectural Review, 2-2012 (72), pp. 10-15, 2012.

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    qualities should we seek to achieve in a Grand Tallinn plan? In order for people toassociate with the expansion, it may be important that the expansion containcertain recognizable traits of the existing city a certain visual pattern or aconvention of social agreements. A plan drawn by the Finish architect ElielSaarinen for Grand Tallinn in 1913 was not the most careful plan in terms of pickingup this pattern-language of Tallinn, but it nevertheless proposed a spatially

    coherent vision for the extension of the city, which influenced Tallinnsdevelopment even under Soviet times. The citys expansion to Lasname viasunken arterial roads under the Soviet rule, was proposed by Saarinen 99 yearsago, though with a different form and demographic pattern than what we havetoday.

    But architectural visions, such as Eliel Saarinens, are certainly not the only, nor thedominant forces shaping cities. That is not to say that such visions do not matter I tend to think that they can produce a surprisingly powerful influence on a citysdevelopment trajectory but that there are also other very important societalforces at play, which directly influence the forms of cities. Among those, there arereal-estate markets, energy prices, the reliability of utilities and services,

    geographic constraints, climate conditions, history, and of course peoples will.When we talk about all these forces, it indeed appears that as architects andplanners we have rather limited influence on cities. Let me illustrate the case withtwo extreme examples of urban form.

    In the Figure below, we see Beverly Hills CA, which lies at the very low end of thedensity spectrum that is still considered urban, with about 600 people per sq km.On the right lies the densest known human settlement in history the Kowloonwalled city, with about 1.25 million people per sq km. To build the Kowloon WalledCity, a lot of preconditions, which were highly specific and probably impossible torepeat, needed to be in place the electricity and utility networks had to be stableenough to guarantee that the place will not go pitch black and steaming hot overdaily ruptures to service; construction technology had to be advanced enough tobuild twelve stories with virtually no maneuvering space for cranes; and thehealthcare system had to be reliable to support the ill and the weak in case ofneed. But once in place, both of these extreme urban structures have also shapedtheir inhabitants daily lives in important ways. In Beverly Hills, one has to drive toget around for instance. One can find almost no commerce, except on and aroundthe Rodeo Drive, whereas the Kowloon Walled city was full of commerce probably every service and store one can imagine. So again, we see a circularcausality, where social forces lead to a certain form, and once in place, the formaffects the land use pattern and our experience of the place.

    We can also detect some of these forces at work, when we look at the recent

    formal changes in Tallinn. It is easiest to consider these changes, when we compare

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    Sevtsuk, A. How we shape our cities, and then they shape us, MAJA: the Estonian

    Architectural Review, 2-2012 (72), pp. 10-15, 2012.

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    them to Tallinn during the Soviet times. I will briefly outline six of such changesthat stand out today:

    1. Whereas the city-country boundary used to be more distinct and sharp underState control of all land in Soviet times, we now see visibly disorderly edges andleapfrog development in Tallinn. This type of jagged expansion is largely a result of

    land privatization around the city; the lack of ground water tapping controls; andthe lack of legal growth controls.

    2. Market forces were not the main drivers of urban form in the Soviet times. Infact, the highest densities were built on the edges of the city, in the so called hillsof Tallinn Lasnamae, Mustame, isme and grand structures such as City Hall(Linnahall) were located according to civic, not market considerations. What wenow witness is a reorganization of densities in Tallinn. Since 1991, new densitieshave formed at well-connected central locations, and as moving around got easierwith cars, commerce and jobs have clustered into increasingly large sub-centers,such as Kristiine, lemiste and Rocc al Mare, that lie at points of access andcentrality in the transportation network.

    3. There has also been a notable increase in suburban housing around Tallinn.There has always been a share of detached housing in Tallinn, but what we witnesstoday is one of the most important demographic groups young families withyoung children, moving into more spacious and safer suburban housing. In 1995 7%of Tallinns population lived in detached homes, in 1999 it went up to 10%, and ithas kept increasing since. As urbanists, we might ask what changes in central cityliving might incentivize young families to prefer a denser way of life? But the issueis complex even though we could outline a number of benefits to densersettlements, decreasing communication costs favor dispersion. The demand fordetached housing also results from complex social issues and lack of private

    opportunities for property development during Soviet times. Estonia, similar to

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    Architectural Review, 2-2012 (72), pp. 10-15, 2012.

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    other Scandinavian countries, has a very low population density, where land valueshave not yet generated market conditions for very dense housing developments.

    4. We have witnessed a huge amount of experimentation in building types since1991, some of which like office buildings, and the already mentioned shoppingcenters, were little known prior to 1991. As a recent exhibit at the Venice Biennaleshowed, only about 10% of all single-family houses in Estonia are built on

    standardized templates, or so-called catalogue types. 90% are based on individualdesigns this constitutes a huge wealth of ideas! But a number of theseexperiments have been constrained by financial means and are consequently notlikely to age very well. The downtown office district, which used to have anaesthetic of stone, is now predominantly glass, which might not be best suited tothe citys climate. Unlike some of the more stable European countries, distinctbuilding typologies in the meaning of Aldo Rossi have not yet evolved in Tallinn.

    5. Car ownership in Estonia in 1980 was 126 per 1000 people. In 1995 it was 250 per1000 and today it is 471 per 1000, which is almost one car per two people, veryclose to the EU average. Car ownership has grown three and a half times in only 30

    years! This has produced a remarkable increase in the amount of land that isdevoted to parking and roads, a rather unfortunate change for the pedestrians ofTallinn. The former symbolic role of some of the central traffic nodes has given wayto efficiency and throughput.

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    Sevtsuk, A. How we shape our cities, and then they shape us, MAJA: the Estonian

    Architectural Review, 2-2012 (72), pp. 10-15, 2012.

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    6. An last, largely driven by limited economic means, a lot of building stock lasts along time in Tallinn fortunately so. An average buildings life expectancy is wellover 25 years, which is more typical of some western countries, most notably theUS, but now also many parts of Asia, where it is even shorter. Longer building lifeexpectancies have incentivized better upkeep, more adaptive-reuse and

    preservation. The renewals that have taken place in the Fahle district, TelliskiviStreet and Rotermanni quarter, offer delightful examples of contemporary urbanenvironments that build upon the legacy of the past.

    But for a city to evolve in a healthy manner, it need not only grow on the edgesand on top of existing structures, but also continuously change its existingstructure. Like many parts of Europe, Tallinn now has a significant historicpreservation body that guides the choice and protection of significant structures.This is indeed necessary, but we also need an approach to demolition in order tosustain a healthy urban metabolism. Cities have to change, just like the peopleliving in them change and we need to pay more attention to how we can allowthese changes, which generate affordability, to take place without loosingimportant qualities in the existing built fabric.

    How cities shape us.

    The above forces shaping cities are relatively well understood, at least comparedto the other side of the coin that I am going to address next. How the forms ofcities impact people is much less understood, though a body of theory is slowlygrowing. This is partly due to the fact that it is very difficult to rigorously analyzethe influence of the built environment on social and economic processes, andpartly because we do not seem to be paying much attention to it. But the questionof how the built environment affects, and desirably benefits, the choices thatconstrain our daily behavior, is in fact more important, since it allows us to also

    question whether the kind of city we build is really the one we desire?

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    Sevtsuk, A. How we shape our cities, and then they shape us, MAJA: the Estonian

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    There have been times most notably in early Modernism where architectsbelieved they could change society. The demolition of Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis in1972 symbolized the surrender of architectural design as a cure to important socialissues of cities. This has produced important consequences disbelief andconfusion to what the role of architecture actually is? Some have even made anargument for generic architecture and gone to search for its meaning beyond

    social concerns. I think designers need to abandon the arrogant belief thatarchitecture should do all or nothing for its users. Big issues like urban poverty orinequality cannot be solved via better design alone. Design does matter; it is simplynot the only thing that matters. Other influences like institutional support, policy,financial regulation and economic support also matter, all together. We mustaccept the limited role of design and work with other disciplines to produce qualityurban environments. In a paradoxical way, the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe alsoaffirmed the importance of design, even if in a negative light.

    There is a real need in urbanism to describe the effects of the built environment onsocial processes empirically. Today, cities measure all kinds of things economicoutput, tourism, imports and exports, job growth etc. but not how the form of acity affects any of these things. At the City Form Lab in Singapore, we havedecided to focus on these the question of how the buil...

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